Friday, August 13, 2010

Pressure to Be Passionate

We’ve all heard stories of three-year-old kids who saw the Olympics on TV and just knew it was what they wanted to do. Or perhaps they always sang and danced around the house or drew their first masterpiece on the inside of their closet door. But however it happens, it seems like everyone who’s made it big knew their passion from the day they were born.

When I was young, I assumed that everyone had a passion, but I realize now that that isn't true. Although it may seem that way, most people I've met don’t have a clear notion of what they want to do for the rest of their life, and very few have a passion that began in their childhood. There is nothing wrong with that at all, but the focus on passion makes people feel like they need one in order to be happy or  feel worthwhile or find who they are. 

I have changed my mind many times about what I wanted to do with my life, and there was a time between deciding not to enter college as a theatre major and taking my first fiction writing class, when I felt a bit lost about where I was going. I never made this known – I was planning to major in biology and work in a lab someday, so I entered college presenting this to everyone as my passion. But the truth was that I didn’t love it the same way I had loved writing and theatre, and now psychology. I realize now that I was experiencing cognitive dissonance – I had convinced myself that I was passionate in order to justify the fact that I was choosing this over things that I knew I loved more. It was during this time that I became aware of all the pressure to find that niche early on in life. I wondered if this meant that I wouldn’t be especially successful if I did something that I hadn’t wanted to do all along. You just don’t hear success stories from people who changed their mind a million times.

It made me wonder if perhaps this is like any other kind of media pressure; maybe being told you need to have passion is like being told you have to look a certain way. I know these things are different, but the idea of telling people what they’re supposed to be is the same. After my experience of pretending to love biology more than I did, I often wonder if other people do the same thing. Is everyone really as passionate about what they’re doing as they claim to be? Or do they want to say that they are, like I did?

Can a person’s life story be airbrushed just like a cover model photo? So many things happen in your life that you can really pick and choose what you want to say, making the story sound the way you want it to. Think about something you’re interested in and see if you can find general traces of this interest from your childhood: Did you love to read? Did you play outside every day? You can probably cut and paste your life story to trace one particular interest from your earliest memories to the present, making it seem like this was always your number one passion. And maybe it doesn’t feel completely accurate because of everything you left out. Maybe some of us have cut and pasted our passion stories because we want to believe we had the interest all along. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be just as passionate about something that you found later in life. Everything that I want to do in psychology, I discovered this past year.

Finally, people like to tell you what you’re supposed to be. When we applied to college, we were told that we had to be well-rounded and be involved in different kinds of activities. I wasn’t like this, and I wasn’t about to join things I didn’t love to pass myself off as well-rounded. But a lot of people did things just to get into college. Some time later, there was a new rumor flying around the school that it was better to be really into a few things than to spread yourself thin across a lot of things. I was just as annoyed about this, even if it did give me at an advantage. They were still telling us what to be.

The point is that there will always be people telling you what to be and what should matter to you, and being passionate is just one of those things, like anything else. I would not be surprised if being passionate is trend that’s in style right now, to some extent. Perhaps we'll wake up one morning to find that being more well-rounded is in, and people who have intense interests in just a few things will try to get more involved in a lot of other things because they’ll feel like it’s what they should do. In the meantime, we can just keep in mind that passion you discover later in life is just as valid as passion that you had since you were born. If your goal is to find a passion, then by all means keep exploring. But keep in mind there is nothing wrong with not having one intense interest. Whatever you are is fine as long as you’re happy with it. You can still have a passion for life without a passion for one particular thing.

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